The opportunities to drive for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske in sports cars in recent years has provided Graham Rahal with a better understanding of what it takes to beat the best in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“To beat (Team Penske), every single person has to be at their best every single weekend,” Rahal recently said. “That’s the only way you’re going to compete at that level.”
Rahal teamed with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor in an Acura Team Penske entry that finished third in the IMSA Motul Petit Le Mans race on Oct. 12 at Road Atlanta.
Rahal, 30, was ready for the 2019 INDYCAR season to end after finishing 10th in the points, his lowest standing since 2014.
Still, there were positives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, most notably teammate Takuma Sato winning twice and finishing ninth in the standings. Rahal was in the hunt more often than not with 11 top-10 finishes and the team qualified better with stronger pit stops.
Rahal first points a finger at himself despite his team co-owner father Bobby reminding it’s not all on the driver.
“I will fully say I wasn’t at my best every weekend,” Graham said. “I think everybody within our organization would say at one point or another that they weren’t at their best. I don’t put any blame on my team. My mechanics did a hell of a job this year. My pit stops compared to last year, miles and miles better (than in past years). The improvement we’ve seen across the board has been really strong. We did qualify better on average than last year. I think our qualifying average was like 11th and our finishing average was somewhere close to that. We had a lot of top 10s, but our tops 10s were like seventh, eighth and ninth place.
“Versus the year we almost won the championship and we were close to first, we had two wins and a lot of podiums. We need to all just focus on being our best. If we do that, we’ve got the personnel. Takuma is back, so it’s another year being familiar with each other that we can work and identify things and try to get better.”
RLL announced just before the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca that Sato had agreed to terms to return in 2020.
Rahal’s career-best points finish was fourth in 2015, when he won at Fontana and Mid-Ohio and had six podiums.
“There have been guys who have gone through that,” Bobby said of his son's two seasons without a race win. “(Ryan) Hunter-Reay a couple of years ago hadn’t won a race in a couple of years. We were in position to win some races. At Barber, we had a mechanical issue, a battery issue.
“He’s frustrated, but we all are. As I told him, it’s not like your team isn’t frustrated or your guys aren’t frustrated. We’re all frustrated. But you can’t do it all yourself.”
Sato provided the RLL season highlights with victories at Barber Motorsports Park and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
“He’s done great, won two races this year and won one last year,” Bobby said of Sato. “He’s had some other good races. He was third at Indy, right on (Alexander) Rossi’s butt.
“Our first priority has always been to make sure our two cars are as successful and competitive as they can be. While we’ve had some really good races this year and a number of top fives for both guys, we need to be better.”
Bobby laments some bad luck for his son, not just at Barber but at Iowa Speedway.
“He was right with Rossi and the engine dropped a valve,” Bobby said. “It was a miracle that he finished. A lot of silly stuff this year. We certainly can be better.”
Graham was upset with himself after causing a multi-car crash in the first corner of the Sept. 1 Grand Prix of Portland.
“After Portland, obviously he was pretty down on himself and rightfully so,” Bobby said. “But a couple of days later, (Graham was thinking) we’ve got to finish it off strong at Laguna. It’s not all down to him. It’s down to the whole team.”
Graham’s lone podium this past season was a third at Texas. He was also fourth at the Circuit of The Americas and Long Beach.
“As a team, this is an important time for us,” Graham said. “We needed the year to come to an end. We had moments of brilliance. We had moments of awfulness. I don’t know what other word to use.”
As he spoke, 2019 series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske walked by him.
“We need a little bit of time now to get together and figure out how to kick (Josef’s) butt,” Rahal said with a smile.